For Bonds, a Season Challenged
As the crisp breeze rolled in from the Pacific like a poisoned quail, the man grunted laboriously as his foot slapped down on the concrete, the echo sounding like the call of the aluminum bats they use to wallop ground-rule doubles at college campuses not far from where this ordinary man stands, his ordinary jaw thrust forward, his ordinary hand gripping the railing's cold metal like a drunken eel that just won't let go of his ordinary fingers. But this was no ordinary man. This was Mr. Barry Bonds, either the greatest hitter of all time or the biggest sham since Sam and the Pharaohs.
Mr. Bonds was emerging from his first session to rehabilitate his knee, and while his trainers seemed to indicate that it went well, Mr. Bonds was unhappy.
"Can't you leave me alone?" he barked at me. "Look at what you're doing to my family!"
Mr. Bonds quickly threw one of his crutches at me and grabbed his son, stuffing his boy's head into his armpit and using his lanky frame as a makeshift crutch. I kept awaiting the boy's yelps of protest, but instead he simply stared at me, his eyes both furious and placid as his father's underarm sweat dripped down his nose.
"Do you enjoy humiliating my son like this?" he asked.
I had been warned that Mr. Bonds had fallen apart. Pedro Gomez, ESPN's reporter devoted solely to the Bonds Beat — as the West Coast offices jealously called it — had told me so just before I "lost" him in an industrial-sized garbage compactor. I thought his warnings were the desperate last words of a man who was about to be crushed to death by milk cartons, but it turned out that the weak sister was telling the truth: Mr. Bonds had lost it.
I knew what it was like when a man's paranoia got the better of him: I did run the Times sports section, after all. There's a moment when your fears suddenly see mirrors all around them, and the worst of it seems to be true. Sometimes when Howell Raines would start in with the Bear Bryant speeches, I swear to God he looked out at us and saw a sea of Crimson Tide players suited up and ready to square off against some invisible team. "Is it real?" I could see him wondering, only to be snapped back into reality by another Pulitzer landing on his desk.
Mr. Bonds was in this same space at this spring dusk, and I quickly understood that this wasn't a Peter Gammons moment. This was the time to duck into the shadows before frustration convinced me to check Mr. Bonds' stomach for bloating and to gnaw on his neck for a quick blood sample. I am a responsible journalist — show me a box score and I'll show you a lede — but sometimes even Dick Schaap had to miss a deadline and turn in a column wavering like a knuckleball in a stiff headwind, the stitching dancing toward a finale that stretches into infinity, a candle in the wind. Buy my Joe Torre book.